When longtime Republican activist Grover Norquist looks at the current crop of contenders for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, he feels generally encouraged. It’s a strong group devoid of the “munchkins” that he says cluttered the ballot in 2008 and 2012. But some of the top contenders, particularly former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, face unique challenges.
During a break in the action at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Norquist, the head of the noted anti-tax group American for Tax Reform, said that in his view the field of realistic challengers for the GOP nomination boils down to six candidates. Five are current or former governors and one a sitting senator.
In no particular order, Norquist says the credible field of GOP hopefuls is made up of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“We have six guys who are either on stage already, or half a step offstage who can and will step on stage and can’t be pushed off the stage, can’t be mau-maued off the stage. They can falter, they could melt, they could decide to walk off the stage themselves, but they can’t be pushed off,” Norquist said. “These guys have enough name ID and can raise enough money to stay all the way and be credible.”
Notably absent from his shortlist are senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. He predicts both will struggle to build a national support base while they battle for funding against Perry and Bush, both better known in their home states.
“I think the six is pretty set,” he said. “There will always be one or two surprises, but that is a very different situation than two and six years ago when there were two or three serious challengers and everybody else – I don’t mean to be unkind – but they were munchkins. They were never going to become national figures. They each got their 15 minutes of fame, but you couldn’t take that two weeks of attention – Herman Cain, [Newt] Gingrich, the lady from Minnesota [Rep. Michelle Bachman], and turn that into a campaign.”
Among the frontrunners, Norquist identified some strengths and some weaknesses. Walker, he said, has rocketed to the top tier of candidates more quickly than many expected, and has made some missteps in public statements. However, “He has been elected three times in a blue state in the last four years.”
That automatically confers an advantage over some of the other candidates, particularly Perry and Bush, who are years away from their most recent campaigns and have never had to run in an atmosphere in which the ultra-conservative Tea Party element of the Republican base is both vocal and influential.
“The bar for being a Reagan Republican is about ten feet taller post-Tea Party than it used to be, and a number of these candidates are post-Tea Party people,” Norquist said. “If you’ve never run for office with people screaming ‘Kill the earmarks! Stop the spending!’ in your ears, you have no idea what it’s like out there.”
For Bush in particular, he said, that could prove to be a challenge. “When he was governor, people considered earmarks…a sign of virility, of your power in town. Now they’re considered gross and despicable and vaguely corrupt.”
Norquist said he isn’t questioning Bush’s basic understanding of the new reality of American politics – just his experience.
“It’s not that he doesn’t get those issues, but he’s never lived them,” he said. “He doesn’t give a speech and call for closing down most of the federal government and it’s a polite applause line.”
The Republicans in the House, he pointed out, have voted four times in eight years for budget deals that would drastically cut entitlement spending. “How many times have we said you can’t touch entitlements, it’s the third rail of American politics?” he asked.
Nevertheless, he notes, Republicans have suffered no significant political pain as a result.
“This is a different Republican Party, a different House and Senate, and a different Washington,” he said. “If Jeb Bush was to ask his brother what’s it like in DC, he wouldn’t know, because he predates the Tea Party – never mind what dad would think. His challenge is, ‘How do you catch up?’”
Bush has plenty of strengths, according to Norquist. His biggest problem is that nobody remembers them -- particularly when it comes to younger voters.
“They’ve not read in the newspaper of anything he’s ever done, because he was governor before they were politically aware,” he said. “It’s not Bush’s fault. It’s just timing. He needs to introduce himself to a younger cohort.”
In Norquist’s view, Bush has a pretty good story to tell. “He doesn’t have to exaggerate, because he was a reformist governor as governor of Florida. He was the Scott Walker of his day, doing things that others hadn’t done in a way that others would do.”
However, Norquist also said that the party shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Unlike some state-level officials, Paul can claim nationwide support (thanks in part to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who made multiple presidential runs) and is a talented campaigner.
“He gives a speech in Berkeley and gets a standing ovation, and he gives the same speech to college Republicans and gets a standing ovation. He has a capacity to communicate liberty left right and center, which is unique,” Norquist said.
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